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Gendered languages and women’s workforce participation rates

Rajesh Venkatachalapathy writes:

I recently came across a world bank document claiming that gendered languages reduce women’s labor force participation rates. It is summarized in the following press release: Gendered Languages May Play a Role in Limiting Women’s Opportunities, New Research Finds.

This sounds a lot like the piranha problem, if there is any effect at all.

I [Venkatachalapathy] am disturbed by claims of large effects in their study. Their work seems to rely conceptually on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics, which is also quiet controversial on its own. I am curious to know what your take is on this report.

He continues:

The cognitive science behind Sapir-Whorf, and the related field of embodied cognition in general is quiet controversial; it appeals to so many people, yet has very weak evidence (see for example, the recent book by McWhorter). This paper seems to magnify this to say something so strong about macroeconomic labor market demographic indicators. I cannot avoid comparisons with Pinker’s hypothesis in his most recent book that enlightenment thought and secular humanistic principles derived from it has been one of the primary drivers of the civilizing process of the Norbert Elias kind or the Pinker kind.

I am not claiming that such macro-level claims can never be justified. For example, I just began reading your academic colleague, economist Suresh Naidu’s recent paper on how democratization in countries causes economic growth. From the looks of it, they seem to have worked hard at establishing their main hypothesis. Maybe, their [Naidu or his collaborators] approach might provide us with additional insight on whether the causal claims of the paper on gendered language and workforce participation is reasonable and defensible with existing data, and with their [the paper’s] data analysis approach. I just find it difficult to imagine how a psychologically weak effect can suddenly become magnified when scaled to level of large scale societies.

After having trained hard to be skeptical of all causal claims over the years, I see what I feel is an epidemic of causal claims popping up in the literature and I find it hard to believe them all, especially given the fact that progress in philosophical causality and causal inference has been only incremental.

My response: I agree that such claims from observational data in cross-country and cross-cultural comparisons can be artifactual, and languages are correlated with all sorts of things. I don’t know enough about the topic to say more.


  1. Jim Dannemiller says:

    ‪This strikes me as the problem known as the ecological fallacy ‬which the late statistician David Freedman was fond of pointing out. The ecological fallacy is thinking that relations that exist between variables at the aggregate level (e.g., countries) are indicative of relations that hold when individuals are the unit of analysis. They might, but confounding and aggregation bias can make make such inferences very problematic. Here is a brief, but very clear exposition of the problem.

  2. anonymouse says:

    From the linked report:

    “In households in Saudi Arabia, experimenters from the University of Chicago and University of Zurich addressed misperceptions about the typical level of support men have for women working outside the home, and women in these households were subsequently more likely to participate in a job interview.”

    Yeah sure, that’s the problem in Saudi Arabia, gendered language.

    “Gendered languages are associated with worse labor market participation rates for women and more regressive gender norms”.

    ‘Associated with’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.

  3. Renzo Alves says:

    I’m pretty sure that linguists regard this claim as bunk (although I’m not currently a practicing linguist, I have a Ph.D. in linguistics and I certainly regard it as bunk.) I believe the folks at the Language Log site have discussed this question a lot and have concluded that it is bunk.

  4. oncodoc says:

    English is not my first language. I have studied a third language in addition to my native language and English, and like many Europeans I know a smattering of other tongues. When I see these kind of articles, I tend to think that the authors are monolingual. Many languages are gendered, but there is little consistency in the assignment of gender. A table is masculine in German but feminine in French and Spanish. In German a fork is feminine, a spoon masculine, and a knife is neuter. The only language where this noun gender makes any sense is Hebrew where we are specifically taught that G-d is above these considerations and that the use of gendered nouns and adjectives are artifices that we should ignore.

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